Plains Indian Heads
Why do some artists reappropriate racist imagery?
People illegally downloading films in the early 2000s may have seen this ephemeral guerrilla art. It was part of Jason Lujan’s Indian Interpolations, where he downloaded movies that included real Native actors, inserted little mascots (from the French word for witch), and then uploaded the movies back to the sites to be downloaded and experienced by unsuspecting users. He says: “The interruption is short, and does not affect the flow of the movie in any way — leaving the viewer with a choice to finish their pirated movie, or discard it and hope to download a copy that has not been manipulated.” This is the only still shot I could find online (does anyone know what movie this is from?), and here we see the infamous, recently retired Chief Wahoo.
Why did Lujan do this? In theory, white supremacy and the chronic dehumanization of Indigenous peoples is continually reinforced by seemingly innocuous objects and symbols in the environment, solid and enduring and ambient, just like these little “Plains Indian” heads and other Native stereotypes. Why reproduce them?
We see them in films, in cartoons, in logos, and in coins like this one: the Indian Head Nickel, designed by End of the Trail creator James Earl Fraser. Both of Fraser’s works, End of the Trail and Indian Head Nickel, occupy a very special place in the hearts and minds of settlers and Indigenous Americans. Roy Lichtenstein actually called End of the Trail “the first conscious cliché.” They’re great examples of material agents of empire that reinforce the fetishization and dehumanization of Indigenous people.
For example, usually US coins honor and commemorate someone specific, someone with a name, but not this one. “My purpose was not to make a portrait but a type.” Fraser said:
When I was asked to do a nickel, I felt I wanted to do something totally American — a coin that could not be mistaken for any other country’s coin. It occurred to me that the buffalo, as part of our western background, was 100 percent American, and that our North American Indian fitted into the picture perfectly.
“North American Indian”? It’s an amalgam, an impersonal “Indian” every bit as nameless as the buffalo on its reverse. A linking or “bundling” occurs, “Indian” and animal, two sides, one coin, the settler ideology further secured through the symbolic logic and power of a perfect circle and precious metal (see Minting Identity).
Related, the Indian Head Penny also depicts no one in particular, a stereotype, a lady modeled after, get this, a Venus statue on loan to Philadelphia from the Vatican, rendered wearing a fake Indian headdress: the “war bonnet” was designed to resemble the Statue of Liberty’s tiara. So, it’s Liberty “playing Indian,” recalling the turkey feathered headdresses worn by Anglo-Americans at the Boston Tea Party and members of the first-ever U.S fraternity The Improved Order of Red Men. The Indian Head penny is also a prototype for the White woman rocking an Indian Headdress trope.
This specific profile is known as a Plains Indian Head due to the feathered headdress and imagined connection to tipis and horseback riding — imagery promoted by the popular Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show which toured the United States and Europe and featured almost exclusively Lakota performers, some of whom had even participated in the battle of Little Big Horn that they reenacted. Many died during tours, and their bodies were never interred properly. This is why Cheyenne/Arapaho artist Edgar Heap of Birds points out the Lakota bodies throughout Europe that never returned to their homelands.
The iconic Indian Head now appears on packaging for foods and on logos. In “I eat stereotypes like you for breakfast,” Cherokee scholar Adrienne Keene chronicles how this ubiquitous synecdoche, this “wallpaper” and “hyperobject,” associates Native peoples with food and consumption.
We see the Plains Indian stereotypes in Game of Thrones. The Dothraki are coded through their ululating and horses as Native American, and the landscapes resemble places like Devils Tower, the first (1906) United States national monument. Check out Keene’s essay “Dances with Dragons: Dothraki and Hollywood Western Aesthetic.”
They’re also part of J.K.’s centaurs in Harry Potter, emerging with bows and arrows from the forest, naked, on horses, with long black hair and war paint. It turns out Europeans have their own history of creating images of mostly naked “children of nature” living across the ocean, due primarily to stereotypes promoted in the Waldseemüller map. They do this to define otherness and animality at home. Fantasies of the other co-determine the self.
Even Hagrid calls the Native-coded centaurs “magical creatures” and not people, and in Order of the Phoenix, these dark men take Umbridge away into the forest to punish her. The adults reading know they will sexually assault her, as centaurs do. Umbridge returns alive, with leaves and twigs in her hair.
Also in Order of the Phoenix, we find out that the centaurs live in the Forbidden Forest “only because the Ministry of Magic permits them certain areas of land,” which further parallels the way settlers have segregated Native Americans throughout the United States.
These centaurs are informed by JK’s own imaginary Indian and England’s enduring love of captivity narratives, a literary genre that’s been around since the beginning of colonialization (see Caught Between Worlds). It employs the “Indian savage” stereotype, a trope that arguably grows into American zombie imagery, where subhuman beings intrude on your territories, as we see in Attac on Titan, The Walking Dead, and Midnight Gospel.
In April 2022 a bill finally passed to change the name of Indian Head Highway in Maryland to Piscataway Highway. Non-natives are pissed about it, and it turns out the highway name won’t really change anyway. Related, in Missouri last year a town voted to keep the name of their high school mascot as the Savages and just eliminate the Plains Indian head. Not immediately, however. “The Savage mascot is in the middle of the gymnasium floor, and we just had that floor resurfaced two years ago and that should be done once every 10 years, so it is going to be around for a long time.”
Plains Indian Heads are everywhere and therefore overlooked. They are moved into background ubiquity, into our cognitive periphery, which Nancy Mithlo calls the “wallpaper” in the mind that we look through every day— ever-present yet invisible. In critical theory, the micro-racist visual culture may amount to what Timothy Morton calls a hyperobject, a huge, invisible atmosphere to the flame of ongoing racism and white supremacy—that “invisible environment” that artists sometimes try to point out.
One reason artists reappropriate native imagery developed by the dominant culture is to assert some degree of agency and control over it, to own it, to Read/Write instead of Read Only. But it’s also to highlight, to archive, and to bring it out from behind the periphery and the shadows and into the spotlight of awareness. This helps to burn it up, evidently. Awareness is actually pretty curative.